The year 2016 saw the penultimate round of CONCACAF qualifying wrap up, with precious few surprises and the much-anticipated kick-off of the final round, known simply as the Hexagonal. Of the remaining six teams vying for places at the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™, Costa Rica, Panama and Mexico are celebrating the year that was with most gusto, while USA, and Trinidad and Tobago, hope for a fresh start in 2017.
Jamaica, Canada fall short
Round Four, the semi-final stage of qualifying in the region, finished with a largely predictable field of qualifiers for the Hex. The notable exception was Jamaica, who had teased their faithful fans of a return to the world stage after a sensational run in the 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup, where they eliminated the host Americans and finished a close second behind superpowers Mexico. But even with that momentum, and the influence of Winfried Schaefer on the touchline and Leicester City star Wes Morgan at the heart of their defence, the Reggae Boyz stumbled before reaching the final round of qualifying for Russia 2018, tying minnows Haiti for last place in a tough group that also contained Panama and Costa Rica.
Canada, despite showing much improvement under former Real Madrid coach Benito Floro, also failed to force their way to the Hex. It brings the curtain down on a fine generation of Canadian internationals, most notably Turkey-based Atiba Hutchinson. Despite a fine career, the midfielder will likely not know the feeling of reaching a world finals.
Panama press Hex leaders
Costa Rica are the form team at the front end of the road to Russia. Pushing on from their outstanding quarter-final run at Brazil 2014, the central American powerhouses are picture perfect after two games and sit alone atop the six-team Hex field. Veterans like Celso Borges and Real Madrid goalkeeper Keylor Navas lead a side that has not tasted defeat over the course of eight qualifying games – that is 720 minutes of football, in which they have conceded just three times. Joel Campbell scored twice in the highlight of the Tico campaign so far: A 4-0 demolition of USA in November that sent the Americans into a tailspin.
After two matchdays in the Hexagonal, Mexico are also riding high. The seven-time CONCACAF champions have assembled a squad so lightning-fast and loaded with talent, that it is hard to imagine their manager Juan Carlos Osorio’s job was actually under pressure at the start of the Hex (due largely to a catastrophic 7-0 loss to Chile in the Copa America Centenario). But through their eight games in both the semi-final round and the Hex proper, they have scored 15 times, with the attack well marshalled by of Javier Chicharito Hernandez, who is in the form of his life. El Tri’s opening-day win in the Hex saw them break a decades-old curse and beat arch-rivals USA in their fortress of Columbus, Ohio. With Chicharito, Carlos Vela and captain Andres Guardado all firing, and young guns like Jesus Tecatito Corona complimenting the old head of Rafa Marquez, it looks unlikely the Mexicans will need an intercontinental play-off to reach Russia like they did ahead of Brazil 2014.
While it might be old hat to Mexico and even Costa Rica, Panama are aiming for their first world finals. With a golden generation of players reaching their peak vintage, Los Canaleros, under Colombian coach Hernan Dario Gomez, ended 2016 tied with Mexico in second place and only two spots off the Costa Rican leaders after holding El Tri to a draw at home and beating Honduras away in hostile San Pedro Sula. “It’s crunch time now,” said defensive stalwart Roman Torres, who recently won a Major League Soccer title with Seattle Sounders. “If we can win our home matches, we’re through to the World Cup.”
Heads roll for USA and T&T
A poor string of results at the start of the final round of qualifying saw former Germany superstar Jurgen Klinsmann’s reign as USA coach come to an abrupt end. A low-energy loss on home soil to Mexico combined with a hammering on the road in Costa Rica forced the powers that be to pull the plug on the so-called Klinsmann era, a five-year stretch that will be viewed with mixed emotions by American fans. It is a results-business after all, and Trinidad and Tobago boss Stephen Hart suffered a similar fate when he dropped his two results in the Hex after overseeing a profitable semi-final round. The USA have tapped an old campaigner in former boss Bruce Arena, while the Soca Warriors put their trust in the hands of much-travelled Belgian Tom Saintfiet, as 2017 beckons.